Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Jeannine Hall Gailey, a poet from the Seattle, WA area. Please enjoy her post!
Building Community in a Tech Center—“Geeks for Poetry, Poetry for Geeks:” On Being Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington
Let me admit from the beginning of this post that I’m a reformed former techie—I spent a dozen years working as a technology manager at companies like AT&T, Capital One, and Microsoft. So, though I have been focusing on life as a poet for the last ten years or so, I do have a special place in my heart for the kind of person who would rather talk about code, or Dig Dug, than the latest music or fashion.
When I first moved to Redmond over ten years ago, I couldn’t find an Open Mic, poetry workshop, or a bookstore with poetry readings anywhere in a thirty-minute driving radius. Seattle’s “Eastside” (two words smashed together into a general term covering cities like Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville, and Issaquah) was notorious for being a bit sterile and frosty: a bunch of malls and bedroom communities for high-tech workers uninterested in the kind of thriving arts scene that Seattle has been home to for years.
I was motivated then—and now—in trying to bring together not just poets but other artists who might help bolster and support each other being creative and finding spaces that were friendly to the arts. I didn’t want people to have to drive over the famous floating bridge to have an experience with poetry.
So the job of trying to build a poetry community in a town built largely around the technology industry (Microsoft, Nintendo, etc.) was one I was happy to take on when I took the job as Redmond, Washington’s second Poet Laureate. But the task of actually putting a plan into action has been challenging. I wanted to work in an innovative way, not just doing readings and writing occasional poems, but reaching out with topics that the local non-poet might actually be interested in—the language of science in poetry, e-publishing and social media, comic books in poetry.
I brought in other poets to talk about these topics, and when I did readings, I tried to incorporate other art forms—music, art, and theater. I even created a slogan: “Geeks for Poetry, Poetry for Geeks!” The idea was to present the kind of work our community might enjoy, and in turn, that the community would see that poetry wasn’t just for the right-brained, but could appeal to math-lovers and coders and physicists as well.
I had wonderful partnerships with the local library—our library in Redmond is an anchor of one of the best library systems in the whole country, the King County Library system—and the librarians were wonderful about setting up events, providing space, and encouraging people to attend. We had lovely readings and panels at all hours, on weekends and weekdays. I had a great time visiting a local high school creative writing class, holding workshops with teens on things like anime and Japanese poetic forms, and holding a reading and a haiku workshop at a local art museum.
Some events were more successful than others; one book group I tried had only one or two people show up—but the talk on “e-publishing and social media for poets” brought in a full crowd of interested and engaged audience members, some of whom said they had never visited their library before. State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken brought in a healthy audience as well, bolstered by extra publicity from the KCLS Library system and a local book group who decided to try Kathleen’s book as their next choice, and even passers-by who were interested in talking about issues around Hanford (Kathleen’s second book, Plume, examines her childhood and early adult life and its relation to the Hanford nuclear site.)
I’ve asked more questions about the kinds of things that might help people be attracted to poetry and gotten to know people—neighbors, teachers, librarians and city officials—I might never have known if I hadn’t been in this position. I’ve done things I never dreamed of, like discussing poetry with my city’s mayor, or reading poetry for the city council.
In my second year, the question of how to continue making inroads in my community is an interesting one. Do I reach out to local workplaces, to the business community (Chamber of Commerce readings? Partnering with local visual artists?), or should I try harder to make inroads at the already overburdened school system? I’m a little daunted, and a little time-crunched, but that’s everyone working in the arts these days. I’m hoping the guests I’ve brought in—artists, publishers, poets—and the groundwork I laid building up social media resources will help the next Poet Laureate find a more flourishing poetic community than the one I found when I first moved here. I’ve met many intelligent, thoughtful people who are committed to helping build an arts community here, which gives me hope for the program going forward.
Speaking of hope: my ambitions might be less grand that they were at the beginning of my two-year tenure. I’m a little more realistic, perhaps, about creating the vibrant poetry community that I once dreamed of. I hope that the excellent poetry book selection at our local library has more customers than it used to; that newcomers to the town looking for poetry don’t feel quite as lost as I did all those years ago; that students at the local schools might get a chance to meet a real live poet and talk about poetry.
My definition of success right now is that even a few people will be drawn to poetry who have never before considered themselves “poetry people;” that Redmond might be a friendlier town for writers (and avid readers) in the future; that the slogan I came up with for my tenure: “Geeks for Poetry, Poetry for Geeks” might be realized.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the current Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and has authored two books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011). Her third book, Unexplained Fevers, will be published this spring by New Binary Press. She teaches a graduate seminar course at National University in California and was on the core faculty of the Centrum Young Artists Project in Port Townsend, Washington. Gailey’s work addresses feminist issues of power in mythology and comic book cultures, turning fairy tale stepmothers into empathetic characters, and holding up a mirror to contemporary American culture’s images of powerful women.
Jeannine’s poem “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [Medical Wonder]” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.